If anyone was wondering why so many Chinese are visiting the United States, an official Peking publication has just revealed this to be part of ancient Chinese tradition -- since it was actually the Chinese who discovered America, at least 1,000 years before Columbus.

This startling news comes in the August issue of China Reconstructs, a foreign-language publication of the Chinese government.

The article, including diagrams of Chinese-style anchors found off the California coast and photographs of ancient dynastic texts, is the work of Fang Zhongpu.

He is described as "a specialist in the history of navigation [who] has spent 20 years collecting data and researching into this subject."

Fang reveals that China's equivalent of Columbus was a humble monk named Huishen. He sailed off to spread the Buddhist faith in 458 and returned in 499 with an astonishing story of a 7,000-mile voyage to a land called Fusang, according to the 56-volume "History of the Liang Dynasty" written about the year 600.

It is not clear if anyone believed Husihen's story at the time, but according to Fang, modern Chinese scholars are convinced that Fusang was Mexico. Huishen described in detail a "Fusang tree" that sounds much like the Mexican century plant. The plant has tall flower stalks that grow out from fleshy leaves and flowers only once after 10 to 30 years.

"In the 1st century the Chinese already knew how to use the stern-post rudder to keep ships on course," Fang relates in his article. "In the 3rd century Chinese sailors were able to calculate sailing speeds and the length of voyages and make use of the northeast [spring] monsoons. In the 5th century there were frequent seaborne exchanges of envoys between China and other countries.

"So it would have been quite possible for Chinese ships to cross the Pacific in the 5th century."

Fang credits an American archaeologist, James Robert Moriarity of San Diego, for crucial information about the discovery off the California coast of stone anchors "about 3,000 years old and Asian in origin." One discovery off the Palos Verdes Peninsula included two stone cylinders with holes bored through and an equilateral triangle. Another large circular stone with a hole bored through was found 1,000 fathoms deep off Point Medicino.

Fang said anchors of that shape, often taken from stone rollers for road building, "are known to have been used for thousands of years" in China.

But Fang rests his case on the monk Huishen's detailed description of the land of "Fusang."

The Fusang tree, Huishen reported, had buds like bamboo shoots and red, pear-shaped fruit.

"From the bark, cloth and garments were made," he reported. "Houses are built on this tree. There are no walls around the cities. Records are inscribed on material made from the bark of the Fusang tree."

Deng Tuo, a contemporary Chinese historian who once got into serious trouble for backhanded critiques of the rule of Mao Tse-tung, concluded this was the Mexican century plant, "which played a large role in the lives of the ancient Mexicans." He brushed aside suggestions that Fusang might have been Japan.

Zhu Qfanzi, another Chinese scholar fascinated by the Fusang story, said another part of the Liang dynasty record of Huishen's account squared with his own research on ancient Mexico. Huishen said, "The country has two prisons, one in the north, one in the south. Ordinary criminals are put in the southern jail, whereas those convicted of serious crimes in the northern one. . . . Those in the northern jail are there for life, but are allowed to marry. Their offspring become slaves, boys at 8 and girls at 9."

"For long periods China had led the ancient world in navigation," Fang said. "As early as in the 4th century B.C. her ships piled the neighboring seas. Her sea-going junks reached the Ryukyu Islands and entered the Pacific beyond. Between the 11th and 3rd centuries B.C. Chinese merchants are recorded as frequently visiting the Phillipines to sell silk and rice."

Fang said one of the 3rd century Chinese kingdoms, Wu, had "5,000 ships, the largest with several decks and capable of carrying 3,000 passengers." During the western Han Dynasty, 206 B.C. to A.D. 8, he said, "there are records of navigating by the stars, sun and moon . . . and of Chinese sailors determining their position at sea by reading the position of celestial bodies with the aid of the 1.9 degree angle. This discovery was a great forward step of navigation."

The Chinese have seemed to nurse a grudge against Columbus, who, after all, wanted to plunder China and was only stopped by the surprising land mass he found in his way. Chinese discussion of American history always takes the side of the Indians, who probably shared some ancient Mongol ancestory with the Chinese.

So, Peking regularly scoffs at anyone who claims to have "discovered" America. Fang instead calls for more searches for ancient relics along the California coast, in hopes that "it may well turn up more evidence of friendly intercourse between China and the America in ancient times."